The World Cup of tennis

I’ve just returned to an icy London after a wonderful five-day trip to Malaga, where the weather was in the mid-20s and locals were swimming in the sea. The Christmas lights were turned on one evening, cheered by hundreds, most of whom were sporting t-shirts. This really is a great place to catch some winter sunshine. And it’s such a vibrant city with so much to do and so many bars and cafes. While Londoners huddled in the cold, malagueños basked in the outdoor cafes.

But the real reason I went to Malaga was to attend the Davis Cup, now rebranded as The World Cup of Tennis. And, oh boy, was I lucky! We had tickets for the Thursday and witnessed Novak Djokovic hammering the British player, Cameron Norrie. The young Jack Draper fared little better against the Serbian number two, Miomir Kecmanović. The ties are now just two singles and if those are drawn, a deciding doubles, so that wasn’t the best of days for the fans.

But we also had tickets for the semi-finals for the tie between Serbia and Italy. Kecmanović came out on fire once again and beat Lorenzo Musetti in straight sets. Next up was Jannik Sinner vs Novak Djokovic. The likelihood seemed that Novak would run out the winner and we would be robbed once again of a deciding doubles.

But the Italian had other ideas. His groundstrokes were simply blistering. He seems to have no fear. In his matchup with Norrie, Djokovic gently rocked into the ball, stroking it in silky fashion. He seemed to have all the time in the world.

But this was a completely different style of match. Those extraordinary Sinner groundstrokes kept the Serb on the back foot with no chance of gently stroking the ball to a length. He was forced to trade blindingly fast “groundies” – not a chance of changing the pace or attempting dropshots or coming to the net since he was pinned behind the baseline by the sheer power of it all. He simply wasn’t given the time and he was forced to play Sinner at his own game — with which, for the most part, Djokovic coped extremely well, although he’s not used to his opponents dictating the terms.

How Sinner achieves that power from such a small frame is a mystery to me. He must have perfect timing to do that. He has an unusual backhand, crouching so low one wonders how he gets the ball over at that speed. Apparently, he’s an excellent skier and the style is in fact reminiscent of a downhiller. His frame also allows him to be lightning fast around the court.

He’d actually beaten the Serb at the ATP finals in Turin in the previous week, but that was in a round-robin format and he had to face Djokovic again in the final. Smarting from his earlier defeat, the Serb thrashed the Italian 6-3 6-3, putting him firmly back in his box. Or so it seemed.

Djokovic had made no secret of his intense desire to take Serbia through to win the Davis Cup in Malaga. The last and only time they’d achieved that was back in 2010.

In this year’s semi, Sinner came out all guns blazing, taking the first set 6-2. In the second, Djokovic recovered to take it by the same margin. Throughout the final set, Sinner struggled on his serve while Djokovic breezed through his own service games. It seemed only a matter of time before the Italian was broken. In fact, he was down by three consecutive match points at 4-5 and perhaps Djokovic got a bit cocky, assuming it was in the bag. But the Italian recovered that service game and the Serb played a poor following one, handing Sinner the match. Djokovic looked shell-shocked.

And to rub it in, he had to come out half an hour later to play in the deciding doubles. Djokovic is no doubles specialist and it showed. Sinner cracked many a ball down the middle, a classic doubles ploy which frequently catches opponents out.

Djokovic looked lost and as the Italian fans jeered him he raised his arms to conduct the cacophony, a new habit that he’s acquired. He seems to have finally given up on wanting to be loved – gone is that rather ghastly cupped hand celebration towards the four corners of the crowd. Now he sarcastically claps and waves his arms when a  partisan crowd applauds his double faults. Playing the pantomime villain actually suits him rather better.

Sinner, still on a high after his victory in the previous tie, absolutely murdered poor Alex de Minaur in the final, where Italy was up against Australia and led his side to victory for the first time since 1976.

The Davis Cup now has a new format. It used to be best-of-five matches over best-of-five sets with teams travelling the globe throughout the year. It became too much for many of the top players, a number of whom refused to play. Their schedule is packed enough as it is and the event often felt a little second-rate.

Now the top eight qualifying teams play best of three matches over just one week. It’s been heavily criticised by many, including the Aussie captain, Leyton Hewitt, but maybe that was a touch of sour grapes.

But in Malaga it worked. The stadium was packed for every tie and matches such as the one between Sinner and Djokovic were thrilling. That one has to be the best I’ve seen live in many years and will stand out in my memory.

So, now we have a new big three. Djokovic, Alcaraz and Sinner. That’s exciting. It’ll be fascinating to see if Sinner manages to take his first Grand Slam in January at the Australian Open. Until now, it’s been widely assumed that the Spaniard, Carlos Alcaraz, would take over from Novak Djokovic in terms of winning multiple Grand Slams. We hadn’t reckoned on Jannik Sinner. He is definitely a future contender.

Malaga is to host the Davis Cup again in 2024. I’ll certainly be returning and urge you to also get tickets before they all get snapped up. And we could all do with some winter sunshine.

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